Print Your Own Museum

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

If you were ever one of those kids who wanted a dinosaur (me!) or an airplane growing up, you may just get your wish after all. Last week, the Smithsonian Institution launched the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, a new tool that will one day allow the public to print scale models of any one of the museum’s 137 million artifacts that are otherwise hidden away in the archives. Some artifacts that are currently available for printing include a fossilized woolly mammoth, a supernova, and Abraham Lincoln’s face.

The Smithsonian began 3D scanning its collection in February and so far has only documented 20 items in its collection. Some artifacts are harder to scan than others are because of their size and intricacy. The woolly mammoth, for example, had to be scanned from 60 different perspectives so every bone and angle was captured. Günter Waibel, director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, said that even if they were able to digitize one object per minute, it would take 270 years of working 24/7 to scan the entire archive. Their current goal is to document 13 million items, but partnerships with other institutions could increase that number.

Overall, the project is an effort to make museums more interactive and science more accessible to research scientists, curators, educators, and the public. And with the increasing popularity and decreasing cost of 3D printers (they now cost around $1,000; cheaper than a MacBook), it’s possible to print yourself a fossilized dolphin skull. The Smithsonian not only hopes this gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit their museums a chance to experience its wonders virtually, but they also hope 3D printed artifacts will become learning aids in the classroom.

While you contemplate investing in a 3D printer, check out this interactive scan of the aforementioned woolly mammoth!

Credit: Smithsonian/Autodesk